Blue Earth
Glazer's Camera

Exotic Photography: Return to the Road Less Traveled

A swimming pool in San Jose, Ibiza, one of Spain's Balearic Islands, provides a peaceful mediation spot. A swimming pool in San Jose, Ibiza, one of Spain's Balearic Islands, provides a peaceful mediation spot.
© Andy Whale / Getty Images

With much of the world still preoccupied with terrorism, the exotic travel industry in the post-9/11 world has taken its lumpos of late. Are we due for a resurgence in popularity?

No question about it - the U.S. travel industry has taken major hits in the last year and a half. The economy was already heading south in 2001 when the events of Sept. 11 transformed attitudes about the safety of air travel in the space of a single morning.

In 2002 we saw increased violence in the Middle East, terrorist bombings in Bali and Kenya, the growing threat of war with Iraq and repeated outbreaks of the Norwalk virus on cruise ships. Meanwhile, savings and retirement funds continued to shrink, and many Americans - especially in the formerly high-flying high-tech industry - found themselves out of work.

Seattle-based travel and wildlife photographer Wolfgang Kaehler says requests for his photos definitely decreased after Sept. 11. "The travel magazines do less stories per issue," he says. "I work with a lot of travel companies, and unfortunately they've all had major layoffs and cutbacks, [so] brochure production slowed down a lot."

During the resulting slump Kaehler had to lay off one of his own office employees and reduce the hours of another, but he used some of the slack time to scan his existing photos for his web site, which now offers more than 23,000 stock images in an online database."Everyone's down," says Robyn Gorman, director of marketing for Mountain Travel Sobek, a company that offers adventure trips to places such as Myanmar (formerly Burma), Vietnam and Nepal. "We're down 15 percent, which we consider a success because other people are down considerably more."In response to the sluggish market, many tour companies have changed their offerings to appeal to consumers' new concerns about safety and cost.According to Gorman, Sobek has canceled its treks in Iran and rerouted a trip to approach K2, the world's second highest mountain, from China instead of Pakistan.

Tourists' fears of terrorism in so-called "exotic" lands have forced some cruise lines to limit the scope of their international destinations. "People are tending to want to stick closer to home these days," says Erik Elvejord, a spokesman for cruise operator Holland America. Elvejord says his company is planning a more North American focus for the next two to three years, and has had to become more creative in designing trips for customers who want to fly domestically or "in and out of the same city."

Joseph Van Os, whose company, Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, takes photographers to exotic locales around the world, says, "We've refocused our attention on areas that I think are safer. We're doing a lot more in the Arctic than we did (before Sept. 11)." The reason? "It's highly unlikely that Osama bin Laden's hiding behind an ice floe," he says.

Demand still undiminished

Fortunately for those who earn their keep taking photos of faraway places, not everyone is content to stay home until the economy rebounds or the world becomes a safer place for Americans. "There's a market out there of experienced travelers (who) still want to travel to exotic destinations in style," Elvejord says.

Van Os says there are similarly determined adventurers among his customers. "I think people realize that they have X amount of time to live, and you can either lock yourself away or you can get on with it, and a lot of people are getting on with it," he says.

The news media's heightened focus on world events has significantly increased the demand for photos of exotic locales and cultures. Corbis is selling "a lot of photographs from the Middle East to news [clients]," says Carl Gronquist, the stock agency's managing photography editor. "There's been a lot of interest in Islamic culture."

And as long as travel companies are still offering trips to exotic destinations, they need fresh photographs to use in marketing those trips. Gronquist says Corbis is constantly updating the travel images it makes available to its clients. "Major locations change a lot, especially if it's a tourist location," he says. "A new hotel on the beach or something like that makes all the old photographs dated."

Individual destinations go in and out of style, Gronquist says, and advertisers need photos that reflect not only the current "in" spot but also current trends in clothing and hairstyles, photographic techniques (film type, color palette, selective focus, etc.) and even the types of things and people shown in the picture.

Web sites are an important and growing market for travel photographers who are anxious about the current economic landscape, says Jain Lemos, marketing director for Lonely Planet Images, another stock photography house. People want to refresh the look of their online sites at a much faster rate than with print publications, she says. "I think volume is really the key when a photographer is trying to make a living on stock photography," Lemos says. "Over time, your bread and butter is going to come from high-volume, multiple-image sales. And the Internet is the perfect vehicle."

People today "want a different approach to what travel photography looks like," Lemos adds. "Photo buyers want to see people in the environment, experiencing it. It's much more about seeing someone like yourself, not just the natives but the tourists there. And I think the reason we're getting requests for images like that is the travel providers want to show that it's safe to be there."

After Sept. 11, Lemos says, "the travel industry as a whole needed to regroup, and in a way the need to illustrate destinations became even more important, to entice people to get out and travel again. ... What better way to do that than through photography? And not just existing photography, but new photography of different destinations that showed, 'Everything's O.K. here.'"

Changes in attitude

John Sommerfeld and Chris Rice analyze trends in the photography market for Corbis. Rice says she now sees "less emphasis on 'show me the landmarks,' and more emphasis on 'show me how people are having fun spending money in the locale.'" A contemporary travel magazine might include "shots of the food, shots of people sitting around eating in a cafe, and people looking at things they can't find at home," she says.

Sommerfeld says many of the photos being used today seem to feature a new sense of quietness and tranquility. "Before 9/11 there was a lot of stuff that was sort of skateboard mentality - you know, loud, in your face." That seems to have been scaled back, he says, perhaps because the attacks "caused a lot of anxiety in society."

His counterpart at Getty Images, Denise Waggoner, says she noticed a huge increase last summer in images of families traveling and engaging in activities together. "It's not just Mom, Dad, and little Betsy and Tommy," she says. Instead, it's Mom, Dad, Betsy, Tommy, the grandparents, aunts and uncles, and several cousins.

"It goes back in part to staying in touch with your family, and I would say that is part of the 9/11 thing," she says. "It's also part of a backlash [against] technology - putting the family first" instead of the 24/7 working style that fueled the high-tech boom in the late 1990s. "I don't know that it's a conscious decision," she adds. "It's something that emotionally we all keyed into, and then it became a trend."

Another piece of good news for travel photographers is that their work is being used to sell much more than just trips. "We haven't seen a decline in the need for travel images, exotic or not," Waggoner says, "and the reason is that traditionally people think of travel images as promoting hotels and cruise lines, but they also promote perfume, insurance, banking and finance, clothing, (and) cars.

"The other thing we're seeing is that technology equals relaxation," she says. "So by using this great [computer] system you can go to Tahiti or wherever, because our system is doing the work while you relax. It's not just about destination, it's about escape, (or) it's about success and risk."

A good example of this attitude shift, Waggoner says, can be found in a recent ad for the American Insurance Group. "This guy is standing on top of this mountain," she says. "He's clearly climbed to the top - it's a stunning picture. And part of the tag line reads, 'coulda shoulda woulda.' So it's about 'Take the risk, get to the top of the mountain.'"

Security: Necessary hassle

So there are still buyers for photographs of distant lands, but what's it like to travel to such places these days with your photo gear in tow? Opinions differ about whether the new, more powerful x-ray machines pose an increased danger to film, but the photographers interviewed for this story all seemed to be taking the heightened security measures in stride.

Wolfgang Kaehler, who has taken pictures in more than 150 countries since he started his career in 1977, wasn't on the road when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, but he did leave for Mexico a few weeks later. "I went early to the airport, and I had to wait for a long time because I went too early," he says.

Van Os, also a photographer, says, "Right after Sept. 11 things were kind of a hassle with long lines. I was in the air constantly, and my cameras were scrutinized a lot more, and they were subjected to that chemical swab they do to detect explosives. That was an inconvenience, but not a big one."

For some time after the "shoe bomber" tried to blow up an airliner over the Atlantic Ocean in December 2001 with explosives hidden in his shoes, passengers were required to take off their shoes at security checks, "but the answer to that is to wear slip-ons," he says.

With the new airport security systems in place, Van Os thinks the process of getting through an airport will speed up. "Not only that, but [the screeners are] as courteous as they can be," he says, "a definite change in demeanor" from the previous system. "There's still a hassle - there's no getting away from it. Going through an airport is going to mean spending some time with security folks, but it's not hideous or intolerable."

Photojournalist Chris Rainier, who works for National Geographic (see sidebar), says anyone who travels to the farthest corners of the earth should expect a certain amount of hassle along the way, whether it happens in the U.S. or in Timbuktu. "It's always challenging," he says, but "that's all in a day's work. As a professional, I know that's what I need to do. I don't get too rattled by it."

On the road again

After so many months of gloom and doom, there may be a few signs of a recovery on the travel photography horizon.

Kaehler says business started to pick up again in the third quarter of 2002. He hired a new employee in December, and income from his web site, which has about 800 registered users, is growing daily. His outlook for the future of exotic travel photography is upbeat - "if nothing major happens that affects the travel business."

With airfares so much lower than before the 9/11 attacks, the tide is beginning to turn for the travel industry, says Lonely Planet's Lemos. While terrorism fears still exist in regard to the usual political hot-spots, such as the Middle East, India and Indonesia, "that didn't mean people stopped traveling," she adds.

"I think the travel industry as a whole has taken a lot of measures to build that confidence back up," Lemos says. "The magazines and the tour companies are still putting out their catalogs, they're still putting out their articles to all kinds of destinations."

Most shooters in the travel business can certainly agree on one thing: Terrorism has not affected their desire to hit the road again. If and when the industry fully recovers, the photographers will be ready to go.

"If I got a chance to go to Syria right now, I would go," Kaehler says, citing the country's excellent food as just one of its many enticements. "I went there last year and it was just amazing — the people there were extremely friendly. The same thing with Iran; it would be interesting to see what's going on there now after Sept. 11.

"And I always found, even when traveling to Russia when it was Communist, people were so nice," he adds. "It's just politics and politicians who screw everything up."

Chris Rainier: Illuminating Cultures From Within

The Internet has always held the promise of bridging the gap between diverse cultures, but so far most of the information seems to have flowed in one direction: from developed nations in the West, and particularly North America, to the rest of the world. "The validity of information that flows from indigenous cultures towards us is as strong as the other way around," says Chris Rainier, a photojournalist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and cofounder of Cultures on the Edge (cultureontheedge.com), a web site designed to share information between disparate cultures around the world.

Billed as an online magazine, the site features articles, music, videotaped interviews, and stunning photographs of people at home in places like the Thai-Burmese border and southwest Ethiopia. Some of these pictures were taken by "first world" photographers, while others were created by people who belong to the cultures they depict.

"We for so long have traveled to a culture, photographed it, brought it back and presumed to say, 'This is what the culture is,'" Rainier says. "I think that's kind of colonial." The alternative approach, he says, is, "To invite a photographer from the Amazon to tell us what the Amazon is all about, or someone that lives in a tribe in the Sahara desert. They are out there, they are using cameras, they are doing amazing things ... they're telling their own stories, and it's about time."

In fact, Rainier says, the fastest-growing part of the Internet right now is "small indigenous groups building web sites for their own cultures. ... So we truly are seeing a shift, where ancient cultures are using modern technology to preserve their culture in the present.

"The assumption by modern (Western) culture," he adds, "is that these tribes living deep in the forest or hidden behind the sand dunes of the Sahara desert or high in the Himalayas are doomed to go extinct, that they are sort of a last breath of a moment in human history that passed long ago — whereas, in fact, they are thriving, changing, vibrant cultures that continue to evolve."

Rainier says the site currently gets more than 100,000 hits a month from all over the globe and will soon be available in 10 different languages. Eventually it's slated to become part of the National Geographic web site, which gets a whopping 35 million hits a month. As far as Rainier is concerned, that level of exposure will be good for everyone.

"We all have to realize that we live on a small planet," he says. "It's high time we all started talking with our neighbors a bit more."

Anna Peekstok
Story Author: Anna Peekstok

Anna Peekstok is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

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